Bow Thrusters, Blogging, and Communication

Bow ThrusterWhile in the U.S. Navy, one of the methods of communication that was mandated was the recognition of the received message and retort with the confirmation. As an Electrician, one of my tasks was to stand Bow Thruster control. A Bow Thruster was basically a propeller in the middle of a tunnel that ran from one side of the ship to the other on the Bow. It's an Electric Motor that the Bow Thruster ran on and it actually required its own Generator to be online with due to the amount of torque it took to operate.

U.S.S. Spartanburg CountyI was on a Tank Landing Ship (LST-1192) that was actually designed to run into the beach and launch a huge ramp to offload Marine tanks and vehicles. The Bow Thruster allowed complete control of the location of the bow (front) of the ship. The Captain would use it, in combination with the main engines, to carefully navigate the ship. On the bridge, there are a number of people tracking the ship's location, engine controls, steerage, etc. and the Captain would balance all of them in a careful ‘ballet' to gently move a giant ship, hundreds of feet in length, around obstacles to it's destination.

To ensure that the Captain is fully aware, he would ask a question or bark an order. Asking a question would result in an answer from the sailor who was directed the question and then the Captain would repeat that answer. When ordering a sailor, the sailor would repeat the order and execute the order. Once complete, the sailor would state the task was completed and the Captain would repeat and acknowledge it. All of this was also written down in the Ship's log.

Naval Communication

A sample conversation might be:

  1. Captain: “Bow Thruster, one-fifth power starboard.”
    Sailor who is at the Bow Thruster, turn the knob one-fifth of the way to the right.
  2. Bow Thruster: “Bow Thruster, one-fifth power starboard, aye.”
    I was just told to turn the knob one-fifth of the way to the right. Got it!
  3. Bow Thruster Operator turns the knob to one-fifth power starboard.
  4. Bow Thruster: “Captain, bow thruster is one-fifth power starboard.”
    I told the Captain that I turned the knob one-fifth of the way to the right.
  5. Captain: “Bow Thruster is one-fifth power starboard, aye.”
    I heard you! You said it's one-fifth starboard.

Pretty complex just to turn a knob, right? But turning that knob would incur a ton of events… mass amounts of amperage from a Generator, that would drag down a diesel engine, that was watched over by a Switchboard Electrician to ensure nothing out of the ordinary happened, an Engineman observing a diesel and its consumption of fuel and oil pressure, watched over by a Chief Engineer that observed the entire power and diesel plants. The Navy understands that communication is the key, so the process of repeating the message and confirming the message ensures that there's no loss of information in that message.

Following Orders

In Puerto Rico once, a Junior Officer was at the helm and continued to fail to acknowledge the condition of the Bow Thruster. The sailor (me) continued to repeat to him that the Bow Thruster was engaged and at one-third power, driving the bow towards the dock. I actually began backing the Bow Thruster off (this is actually a violation of orders) while repeating (in an alarmed pitch) that it was engaged. Boom. The ship was backing off the dock and the bow dragged a ton of the dock with us. Luckily, most of it was simply wood but it still caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. All because a leader didn't listen to his subordinate… who was doing what he was told. The Officer was summarily dismissed from the Bridge and never allowed to pilot the ship again.

I have great respect for the U.S. Navy. We drilled non-stop for the emergency that never happened to ensure we acted out of instinct rather than fear. We also communicated non-stop. Those folks that had never been in the service may think that this manner of communication is a waste… it's not. When I look at our largest challenges at work, 99% of those issues have to do with communication, not the actual product or service we are serving. The U.S. Navy has established rank, responsibilities, processes and methods of communication. I believe these traits are found in successful businesses as well.

What's all this have to do with Blogging?

And… perhaps they are found in blogging as well! If I communicate with another blog, that blog gets a trackback, and that blogger now comes back and reads and comments on my blog. (And vice versa) The message is sent… repeated… and acknowledged. Perhaps that's why blogging is such an incredible tool and the underlying technologies are beginning to be consumed by mainstream media and even corporations. I know that I've read about Jonathon Schwartz's blog and believe he's said that it helps not only get his message out to the world – but it also gets the message out to his Sun employees.

I'm in no way stating that companies should be run like a Captain runs a ship. The U.S. Navy doesn't have to make a profit or save any money. The U.S. Navy's only goal is to be prepared for the threat that may or may not occur.

And Running Companies Successfully

I do wonder; however, how successful companies are when they have clear lines of authority, rank, and responsibility. I wonder how much easier our jobs would be if direction was clearly communicated, acknowledged, and repeated back. I wonder how many leaders would be more successful if they listened to their subordinates after they executed those orders.

I'm confident that less companies would ‘run into' problems if they did.

This post was actually inspired by a rough week at work. Our development folks executed and released some fantastic features into our application this week. As a Product Manager, my job was to (ironically) stand watch in a “War Room”, communicating and prioritizing issues that may have erupted from our clients. After 4 days in the “War Room”, I can honestly state that – even though we had a few bugs – the major issues were all breakdowns in communication.


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    Doug, I would even go as far as to say that people in our society CRAVE communication. We live in such a hustle and bustle world that communication suffers, and we as humans need communication to be fulfilled in our lives. Not just to be successful in business, but to be successful at being happy as well. Humans were made to interact with each other.

    We would all do well personally and professionally if we always seek to communicate the message clearly, verify we have received messages clearly and confirm receipt of said communication. It may seem like a waste of time to many, but I’d rather waste that time upfront than down the road fixing mixups that happened b/c the message was not (a) communicated clearly, (b) received properly or (c) both. Aside from the “feel good” stuff, it just makes for sound business sense as well. Good post!

    • 2

      We just had a book club meeting today and much of the conversation centered around… communication of all things. I wonder if all our woes really derive from poor communication. And we definitely see the tragic results of ‘no’ communication, that’s how monsters like the Virginia Tech killer develop.

      Thanks for communicating, Jules! Your my new blog-buddy!

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